Martin Amis Visits Ann Arbor
© 1996 by Rachel Smith
Wednesday April 3, 1996
Last night in Rackham Auditorium, Martin Amis read from The Information and chatted about writers, poets, and Hillary Clinton, whose book he was recently asked to review. Martin is an entertaining speaker, wryly amusing, slightly diffident, and seems to be a kind, honest man. He behaved very graciously towards the typically eccentric Ann Arbor audience. I liked him.
Martin Amis has connections with Ann Arbor through his mother, who used to run a fish-and-chip shop here, many years ago. Prior to this, she lived with Kingsley in Nashville, another stop on this tour. It appears that Martin is on a sentimental journey.
Martin talked about book-signings: in England, if your long-lost twin brother was autographing copies of his best-selling novel in an adjacent building, you would probably refrain from putting your head round the door. This may be accurate - I had never attended a book-signing before my arrival in the US. On asking the man to sign copies of his novels, my emotions were dominated by extreme embarrassment. Nevertheless, I now own a copy of The Rachel Papers signed: "to Rachel, Martin Amis." How could I resist?
Why is the relationship between Martin Amis and the British novel-reader so difficult? Perhaps it is because his vision is not pleasant, not easy. Martin often writes about characters whom he dislikes, or at least, whom he expects his readers to dislike; no-one wants to see themselves mirrored in his work. Additionally, the English disdain anyone perceived to be too clever, the smart Alec. In Visiting Mrs Nabokov, Amis says: 'I can write and to a high standard." He hangs on his novels titles such as Money and Success, too close to boasting for the English taste: a literary equivalent to The Sex Pistols naming their reunion tour "Filthy Lucre." If this is postmodernist irony, it flies high above our grudging English heads.
Famously, Martin Amis has been repeatedly ignored by the major literary prizes, the exceptions being that he was shortlisted by the Whitbread Prize for The Information, and by the Booker for Time's Arrow. Earlier, he won the Somerset Maugham prize for The Rachel Papers, his first novel. Last year, he was all over the British press. The publicity was not of the kindest, for example, from the Electronic Telegraph (January 1995):
Before I came to the US, neither I nor, to my knowledge, anyone I knew had read his work. As residents of the north of Britain, it is possible that we were put off by his image as part of a London literary set: a group who could have nothing to say to us. An alternative explanation is that, starting with The Rachel Papers, he acquired a reputation for being distasteful, analogous to that bad rep which continues to haunt Henry Fielding. Of course, it might simply be that I am a scientist, barely literate and without taste, more likely to read genre than literary novels.
Martin is astonishing. In person, so gentle; in print, so vibrant, so brutal. How can we synthesize the two? How can we escape the suspicion that the literary persona is the real man, that his apparent butter-wouldn't-melt self doesn't mask a cold, sneering observer of our human weakness; judging us hateful, despising our inadequacy, disdaining our pretensions? Having met him, briefly, I am aware of this mental conflict, but the problem is ours, not his. I am a little in love with my subject, a little afraid of him.
Amis changes the way you read, the way you think about words. In Understanding Martin Amis, James Diedrick says that: "Amis's language becomes a kind of character.... - self-conscious, virtuosic, vying for attention with the plot and the other characters." The relationship you form with Amis, through his work, is one of complicity as Johnny (Dead Babies) is let loose on the world; you are continuously called upon to admire his verbal slicing, cutting, poisoning technique. You are never given space to draw breath, never allowed to relax; there is no lull in intensity. More than any other writer I know, Martin Amis, author, demands that you notice him.
Amis is in your face. He is barely constrained beneath the surface of his words, occasionally breaching, blowing waterspouts--Look what I can do! Look at me! His novels are clever-nasty, thoughtful, funny, obscene, and above all, serious; the words lie on the page in sticky brown puddles, rubbing off on your fingers and staining the sheets.
The writing of Martin Amis is unlike anything I have seen before. You have to give the man credit, even if you resent him for it.
To finish, there is a rumour circulating in bookish circles, a game of celebrity Chinese whispers, that Martin Amis spent his infamous advance, or a significant part of it, on his teeth. If true, this must be a good thing: his literary creations have been known to kill themselves over such things as dental disintegration or hair loss.
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